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Opinion CNN is stuck in corporate hell

Allison Gollust in Albany, N.Y., in January 2013. (Mike Groll/AP)

Allison Gollust, CNN’s chief marketing officer and a top lieutenant under former CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker, announced her resignation on Tuesday in the latest corporate tremor stemming from the company’s dealings with former anchor Chris Cuomo. A statement from WarnerMedia, CNN’s parent company, reads, “Based on interviews of more than 40 individuals and a review of over 100,000 texts and emails, the investigation found violations of Company policies, including CNN’s News Standards and Practices, by Jeff Zucker, Allison Gollust, and Chris Cuomo. We have the highest standards of journalistic integrity at CNN, and those rules must apply to everyone equally.”

Herewith a question about that statement: If the company pursued every CNN journalist by interviewing more than 40 individuals and flyspecking 100,000-plus messages, how many staffers would come away spotless?

Consider that the CNN News Standards and Practices Policy Guide runs about 90 pages and comprises north of 200 areas of conduct — everything from political activity to objectivity to interviewing minors to disclaimers and beyond. So the Erik Wemple Blog asked WarnerMedia what provisions, specifically, were violated here. The company isn’t commenting beyond its statement and a message sent to employees from Jason Kilar, the chief executive of WarnerMedia.

Gollust released a statement bashing the WarnerMedia release as an “attempt to retaliate against me.”

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The hubbub over Gollust extended the Zucker-Cuomo scandal at CNN to two years; or nine months; or two and a half months — depending on how you count, of course. The crisis started with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, when Chris Cuomo interviewed his brother, then-New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), on CNN air; it deepened in May 2021, when The Post reported that Chris Cuomo had participated in strategy sessions with aides to his brother, who by then was ensnared in a sexual-harassment crisis; and CNN fired Chris Cuomo in December 2021, after transcripts from a state attorney general’s investigation of Andrew Cuomo revealed the extent of Chris Cuomo’s political activity, and after CNN received a sexual-misconduct allegation from a female colleague at his former employer, ABC News. The termination announcement referenced an investigation by a “respected law firm” — Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP — and noted, “Despite the termination, we will investigate as appropriate.”

Steven Goldberg, a spokesman for Chris Cuomo, denied the sexual-misconduct allegation and stated that Zucker had long been aware of the “details” of his work for his brother. To pursue his post-termination grievances against the network, Chris Cuomo hired attorney Bryan Freedman, who had represented Megyn Kelly in her post-separation clash with NBC.

Erik Wemple: Jeff Zucker, Allison Gollust personally pushed for Andrew Cuomo-Chris Cuomo interviews

After weeks of gossipy reports about Chris Cuomo’s plans to sock it to his former employer, Zucker in early February shocked his colleagues with a resignation announcement. The impetus, he reported, was his failure to report a romantic relationship with Gollust. “I was wrong,” he wrote.

This turn of events grew out of the Cravath investigation. As the New York Times reported this week, the firm’s investigators moved from a focus on Chris Cuomo to a broader inquiry of Zucker’s actions and eventually took up the question of his relationship with Gollust. “When the lawyers questioned Mr. Zucker and Ms. Gollust,” reported the Times, “they asked about their romance. Mr. Zucker told them that the relationship had turned sexual during the pandemic. Mr. Zucker didn’t disclose it to anyone in human resources or his superiors at WarnerMedia, including Mr. Kilar.”

Zucker asked Kilar whether he could stay on board until WarnerMedia’s planned $43 billion merger later this year with Discovery Inc., the Times revealed. And the answer was no. CNN’s own Brian Stelter reported that Zucker’s exit may have been geared toward ensuring a “fresh start” for the merged entity. What we have here, then, is multimillionaire news executives squabbling in advance of a multibillion-dollar merger, and an interim team assigned to lead CNN for the moment — all of it tracking back to an anchor fired from his multimillion-dollar contract.

Corporate hell is no place to practice journalism.

Among the many unanswered questions of this saga is what standards and practices Gollust supposedly violated. When this blog asked whether Gollust received an explanation from WarnerMedia, her representative steered us to her statement from earlier this week: “WarnerMedia’s statement … is an attempt to retaliate against me and change the media narrative in the wake of their disastrous handling of the last two weeks. It is deeply disappointing that after spending the past nine years defending and upholding CNN’s highest standards of journalistic integrity, I would be treated this way as I leave. But I do so with my head held high, knowing that I gave my heart and soul to working with the finest journalists in the world.”

As the Erik Wemple Blog previously reported, Gollust and Zucker pressed Andrew Cuomo, as governor, to participate in the early covid interviews with his brother, a move that required suspending a prohibition of brother-on-brother coverage. Those overtures showed poor judgment, considering that Chris Cuomo’s activism on behalf of his brother subsequently bubbled up into a scandal for the anchor and the entire network. (Gollust served as Andrew Cuomo’s communications director for a brief period in 2012 and 2013.)

In its exposé on the imbroglio, the Times reported that Chris Cuomo, during the frenzy of the #MeToo movement in 2017, took the unusual step of contacting the woman from ABC News whom he’d allegedly sexually harassed six years before. He reportedly “proposed” a CNN segment having to do with the company where the woman worked, and the result was a puffy report that aired on the network’s “New Day” program.

Now there’s a prima facie alleged violation of CNN standards and practices, which disallow “conflicts between personal interests and the interest of the Company.” Risa Heller, a spokeswoman for Zucker and Gollust, says, “Neither knew anything about it.”

So why wouldn’t WarnerMedia reveal Gollust’s alleged transgressions? There are at least two explanations: One is that the violations are so picayune as to expose a petty scheme to dump the executive. Another is that they’re so severe as to embarrass the entire operation. Puck’s Dylan Byers reported on Wednesday that WarnerMedia had shut down the investigation two weeks earlier and opened it again to probe Gollust’s action.

There’s some irony in a media company citing standards-and-practices violations without detailing them. Such suppression, after all, violates the supreme standard and practice: transparency. Not that we should be surprised in the least, considering that CNN years ago fought in court to keep the standards-and-practices guide itself from seeing the light of day.